The Church Of Me
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Thursday, June 21, 2007

At first, with its brightly primary-coloured cover – a simple painting of red girl guides holding white butterfly nets in green fields shadowed by distant farm outhouses under a blue sky – the eponymous debut album by LA duo The Bird And The Bee seems like another entry in the procession of smilingly inviting twee (in the best sense) indie records in the wake of, say, last year’s debut by I’m From Barcelona, such that you hardly notice the Parental Advisory Explicit Content box tucked away in the bottom left hand corner. Then you read through the CD booklet and come to the thank yous which include such unlikely indie names as Joey Waronker, Lily Allen, Bruce Lundvall, everyone at EMI Music Publishing and everyone at Blue Note, and then you realise that this is a very major label release but still the least typical Blue Note record since Unit Structures.

Greg Kurstin, who does the music and plays most of it, is one of those writers and producers whose name you see lurking periodically in the credits of albums by big-name artists (for example, Natasha Bedingfield as per yesterday’s article), while lyricist and singer Inara George looks so much like the typical indie female singer that the revelation that she is the daughter of the late Lowell George may come as something of a shock. So The Bird And The Bee are not starving, but the music they make is so painfully and pointedly wonderful that the listener has no option but to decide that it represents the music they really want to make, the art that the day jobs pay for, the place where they can be themselves.

And it’s fantastic music. Pressed to categorise them, I would place them alongside early Stereolab (before they became afraid of loveliness), Saint Etienne, the golden Maida Vale glow of the High Llamas, Future Bible Heroes, Lizard Music, a little forward to Air, a lot back to the Free Design, and incorporating Roy Ayers and all the shimmeringly dazzling stuff that Norman and Joey Jay put on their Good Times compilations, not to mention a touch of lite Tropicalia. In other words, immensely sunny harmonies, gorgeous and unexpected chord changes, a slight sonic distortion to turn the songs into dreams, a bearable lightness of being; the sort of music to which I could happily listen forever.

As with all valuable lovely music, however, Kurstin and George are careful to underline the loveliness with doubt, quiet desperation and the knowledge that life isn’t an unending stream of sunshine; thus the bewitching twitches of opener “Again And Again” concern an inconvenient love-hate relationship (“You’re so stupid and perfect…/I hate you, I want you”) even as it shivers like a newly sipped glass of ice-cold Pimms on a Sunday afternoon in July atop Primrose Hill. “Birds And The Bees” has the same gently insistent thrust as Norah Jones but with rather more colour and some missing vital dimensions. Uncanny harmonies alternate with frustrated music tinkles on “Fucking Boyfriend,” the title of which is intended literally (“Would you ever be my/Would you be my fucking boyfriend?”) since the song concerns itself with, shall we say, alleged Jeremy Clarkson-type problems (“Are you working up to something?/But you give me almost nothing!”). The way George pronounces and harmonises on the word “kne-es” is genuinely unworldly, like a disgruntled angel.

“I’m A Broken Heart” is the obligatory Brian Wilson pastiche but works on account of its ingenious opening Lesley Gore paraphrase, David Ralicke’s downbeat trombone and, again, George’s expansive panoply of voices – what American Spring might have sounded like if they’d persevered. But “La La La” is hauntingly blissful, aiming for heaven with its divine modulations (though I should again mention that Sing Sing have been doing this sort of thing for two albums now; don’t let them pass you by) with its psychedelic revisitations which sound anything but retrograde; just the sort of song, in fact, you’d wish to hear on a hot midsummer evening, the trees swaying with knowing tenderness outside the high window.

In the record’s second half the music begins to grow structurally darker. “My Fair Lady” alternates between doomy, low-cast verses (“I need someone to show a little kindness/If he can turn his head, a little blindness”) and cheerily bright choruses (“Do you know the way? I am from out of town”). A word, too, for the ingenious use of the seldom ingeniously-used Autotune throughout the album; when applied to George’s harmonies, they have the desired effect of making her seem not quite real, just out of reach, and too bright and close up to be absorbed comfortably (as the gloomy piano plunge at the end demonstrates). “I Hate Camera” is fast-paced electropop which again focuses on George’s insecurity about her looks (“Dusty numbers and public relations/Tell me to sit there and just shut up”) though from the evidence of the photos in the CD booklet she has nothing to feel insecure about.

“Because” is an extraordinarily askew ballad, like the Captain and Tennille remixed by Boards Of Canada, all warped synth tingles and George again expressing her frustration at the death of little deaths (“And when it’s done, it’s like I’ve killed someone”). With “Preparedness” things start to become actively disturbing. “Do you know who I am? I’m alive, you understand…alive, alive, alive!” George sings, but the music is subterranean and sonically dislodged; she sounds as though she is singing, or crying, from six feet under, even though the melodies and harmonies are as entrancing as ever.

Finally, we reach “Spark” and the journey is seemingly complete; distant, distorted electronica sends out signals of a stately, sustained melody – it sounds like Fennesz. A synth choir soon augments the lament as George enters with a very clear and precise vocal, but a highly hurt one…”Break through the dirt/Piles of earth/To see where the sun goes” and then her voice crumbles on that “goes”; with its increasingly passionate entreaties set against a beautiful and noble, if unearthly, song, George prays for life and meaning to return: “I heard a spark/Something that glowed/Hundred feet higher,” and you will tremble as resolutely as she does on the “higher.” The album’s surface beauty has already enticed me to play it a couple of dozen times, but its elegant and truthful depth will stay in my mind, even as I listen to “Spark” on the last Midsummer’s Day I’ll have to spend alone. But then, I’m not actually alone. Not anymore. It’s again…and again and again…do it again…

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
. . .

. . .